2015-06-09

Vridar Housekeeping and Security Update

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by Tim Widowfield

For those of you who may have noticed a little glitch just before midnight (Central Daylight Time), with a “Server Unavailable” warning, that was me.  I updated our WordPress instance to the latest version, which is supposed to fix many security issues.

If anyone out there is still getting unwanted pop-ups, let us know, and please give us as much detail as you can.  I want to be sure we haven’t been seriously hacked.

Sorry for any problems you may encounter here, and thanks for reading Vridar.

–Tim

Note: If you have more information you’d like to pass on, like screenshots, please send them to us:

Tim: widowfield [at] gmail [dot] com

Neil: neilgodfrey1 [at] gmail [dot] com


Hidden Meanings and Memories

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s not always a happy experience to get to know too much about some of our favourite talents. Forgive my latecomer status to this little bit of knowledge — but I have just learned that Alice in Wonderland contains a number of scenes that were inspired by the author’s disdain for Darwin’s theory of evolution. Charles Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll) was as reactionary as one could get in Victorian times. Thanks to Rachel Kohn’s Radio National program, The Spirit of Things, for alerting me to the “low down” on this work and its author: Decoding Alice in Wonderland. That led to David Day’s article, “Oxford in Wonderland.” Queen’s Quarterly 117.3 (2010): 403+

Alice_par_John_Tenniel_21One of the historic turning points in human intellectual history in this new era took place a few hundred yards from Lewis Carroll’s residence. This was the famous 1860 Oxford Darwinian Debate in which the bombastic anti-Evolutionist Wilberforce was verbally eviscerated by the rational pro-Evolutionary Thomas Henry Huxley. Known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” Huxley’s victory became emblematic of the triumph of progressive rational science.

In Wonderland, Carroll’s satire of the Darwin debate takes place in the strange smoke-filled Kitchen of the Ugly Duchess. The Oxford counterpart of the Duchess’ Kitchen is one of the grand sites of the university: Cardinal Wolsey’s Great Kitchen. Built during the reign of Henry VIII, Oxford’s Great Kitchen has a massive hearth for roasting entire pigs and, like the Duchess’ Kitchen, was frequently filled with smoke.

The Great Kitchen was also the one part of the university that was directly under the authority of the Bishop of Oxford. Samuel Wilberforce, the son of the anti-slavery movement’s “Great Emancipator” William Wilberforce, was known to parliamentarians and political pundits as “Soapy Sam” because of his brash and illogical debating style. He was the perfect model for the logic-chopping, moralizing, and argumentative Ugly Duchess.

In this fantastic “Kitchen of Creation,” one can imagine these insane cooks mixing up a mad biological soup. Evolution is gone berserk. Uniformed fish and frog footmen seem to have just stepped out of the primordial ooze. A constantly shape-shifting baby appears to demonstrate “survival of the fittest” by preferring beatings to affection. Strangest of all, Alice’s attempt to nurse this child results in a strange backward form of evolution: from a boy into a pig.

Well, I always hated that ugly duchess and baby scene anyway!

Speaking of parallels there was an interesting article a while back on Εις Δοξαν looking at the eleventh labour of Heracles in which he was ordered to recover some golden apples:  read more »


2015-06-07

The Historicity — and modern liberalism — of Paul

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by Neil Godfrey

No doubt  many readers have already been alerted to Richard Carrier latest blog post: The Historicity of Paul the Apostle.

Our Kiwi friend at Otagosh has also posted an alert to this post with his own commentary.

I am traveling and it’s too awkward to elaborate with my own response at the moment. In sum, I do accept Paul as a historical figure but exactly who or what he was behind the letters is not entirely clear. Roger Parvus also raises interesting questions, as many of us know.

Skimming Richard’s arguments my first impression is that some are more solid than others (as with most things); some strike me as discussion starters more than conclusions. read more »


2015-06-06

The modern world is organized a lot like feudalism

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by Neil Godfrey

Coincidentally this brief post dovetails well into the moral point of the preceding one by Tim. Though the immediate topic concerns refugees a more general failure of many Western nations is being addressed.

carens (1)

Joseph Carens

To me it seems a lot like the modern world is organized a lot like feudalism.

So under feudalism there were a few people born into nobility, the vast majority of people were born into peasantry, and they were locked into their class positions. Well, in the modern world, being born into a rich state in Europe or North America or Australia or New Zealand is a lot like being born into the nobility. (Even though some of us are a lesser nobility.) And being born into a poor state in the Global South is a lot like being born into the peasantry. That’s where the vast majority of humankind is.

And the closure of borders, keeping people from moving, just as under feudalism, keeps people in their place.

Now this is not the natural order of things. People just take it for granted. But the whole way we have organized the world is a human construction. And we have to say “What justifies that?” People in Australia, Canada . . . If they were on the other side, why would they think this set up of arrangements is fair? And what makes it legitimate? And I think it isn’t, clearly, if you think about that and that it ought to be transformed. There should be much more equality within the world as a whole and much more freedom to move.

My transcription from Radio National’s Late Night Live interview with Professor Joseph Carens, Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, Who will protect the refugees? 

It’s a provocative image. I’m sure many of us have had similar visions from time to time in our more reflective moments.

Carens was responding to interviewer Philip Adams’ raising the question of a morality that extends beyond the immediate question of refugees. The program was about refugees but Carens’ ethical concerns do not begin and end there:

Adams: . . . There’s got to be a much wider sense of communal morality.  read more »


2015-06-05

The Doctrine of Discovery: The Legal Framework of Colonialism, Slavery, and Holy War

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by Tim Widowfield

English: An oil painting of Chief Justice John...

English: An oil painting of Chief Justice John Marshall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1823, the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Johnson v. M’Intosh (pronounced “Macintosh”). The case centered on a title dispute between two parties over land purchased in 1773 and 1775 from American Indian tribes north of the Ohio River. In the decision Chief Justice John Marshall outlined the Discovery Doctrine, explaining that the U.S. federal government had exclusive ownership of the lands previously held by the British. While the native inhabitants could claim the right to occupy the land, they did not hold the radical title to the land.

In plain English, the United States claimed ultimate sovereignty over the discovered territories, but permitted the native tribes residing there to continue to live in a kind of landlord-tenant relationship. Marshall explained that as a result, the natives could sell only their right to occupancy — their aboriginal title — and only to the federal government. With a stroke of the pen, American Indians had become tenants of the empty land.

Legal basis

The case has several peculiarities; for example, Marshall’s decision did not rely on the Constitution or previous decisions, but instead upon international agreements put in place during the Reconquista of Iberia, and solidified shortly after Columbus’s first voyage to the New World. This framework essentially permitted Christian nations of Europe to invade, occupy, and colonize any non-Christian land anywhere in the world.

Marshall explained that the United States was the successor of radical title, which they had won by defeating the English. (The quoted paragraphs below come from the original text of the decision. The bold text is mine.)

No one of the powers of Europe gave its full assent to this principle [of discovery] more unequivocally than England. The documents upon this subject are ample and complete. So early as the year 1496, her monarch granted a commission to the Cabots to discover countries then unknown to Christian people and to take possession of them in the name of the King of England. Two years afterwards, Cabot proceeded on this voyage and discovered the continent of North America, along which he sailed as far south as Virginia. To this discovery the English trace their title.

In other words, as long as no other Christian nation had taken title of a non-Christian foreign territory, the English saw it as fair game. What Cabot had discovered, they reasoned, became the Crown’s sovereign holdings.

In this first effort made by the English government to acquire territory on this continent we perceive a complete recognition of the principle which has been mentioned. The right of discovery given by this commission is confined to countries “then unknown to all Christian people,” and of these countries Cabot was empowered to take possession in the name of the King of England. Thus asserting a right to take possession notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens, and at the same time admitting the prior title of any Christian people who may have made a previous discovery.

The same principle continued to be recognized. The charter granted to Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1578 authorizes him to discover and take possession of such remote, heathen, and barbarous lands as were not actually possessed by any Christian prince or people. This charter was afterwards renewed to Sir Walter Raleigh in nearly the same terms.

While Marshall focused on so-called heathen people (usually construed as polytheists, animists, etc.), we should recall that Portugal operated under the same doctrine to colonize and subjugate people in Africa, some of whom were Muslims. read more »


2015-06-04

Did Jesus even live? A brief response

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by Neil Godfrey

Peter Enns (Rethinking Biblical Christianity) has posted a “brief thought about scholarship, scepticism and apologetics” in relation to this question. It is a quotation from Gerd Thiessen and Annette Merz’s The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, and makes a refreshing and welcome read given its avoidance of the hostile tone too often encountered on both sides of the discussion.

My own comments:

Peter’s opening quotation frames those who reject the historicity of Jesus as “radical skeptics”. As I have posted before, I don’t quite understand what is meant by a radical sceptic as opposed to any other type of sceptic, and surely scepticism is a valid and sound approach to any scholarly or scientific inquiry. I sometimes wonder if the term “radical scepticism” is meant to convey the notion of unreasonable and wilful dismissal of “common sense”. But the examples Peter offers of historicity doubters — Bruno Bauer, Albert Kalthoff, Arthur Drews — could scarcely be accused of that in their methods of argument whatever we think of their conclusions.

An interesting point follows:

Here historical skepticism appears within or outside theology, often with a great ethical solemnity, and foists on its critics the ungrateful role of apologists driven by their wishes. This is quite wrong. In discussion of the historical Jesus nothing is free from wishes and interests, not even skepticism. 

It is absolutely true that in any discussion (not just of the historical Jesus) “nothing is free from wishes and interests, not even skepticism”. However, if it comes to discussions on the historicity of Jesus the last people I would ever be interested in engaging are “apologists”. Apologists ever since the second century have a bad name for lacing their arguments with personal vitriol. No thanks. I’d rather engage with people I can respect as open to scholarly methods and reasonable discussion wherever that may lead.

There is another assumption, then, that may be true of some deniers of the historicity of Jesus but is certainly not true of all: read more »


2015-06-02

When is a parallel a “real parallel”?

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by Neil Godfrey

I won’t repeat the arguments of Samuel Sandmel here. Too many words. Pictures are easier to read.

Not too long ago when I was visiting Indonesia’s island of Lombok I saw the following pair of pictures in the stairway of my hotel and recognized them instantly — yet I had never seen them before.

boy-girl

What I had seen before, several times in various tourist places around Java and Bali, were the following:  read more »


2015-06-01

You Don’t Have to be Deprived, Suffering or Alienated to be an Apocalyptic Nutter

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by Neil Godfrey

cookIt is easy for us to associate apocalyptic and millennial movements with people who are undergoing social or economic stresses, or suffering hostile treatment of some kind. The idea is that apocalyptic fantasies of divine judgment to be followed by a reversal of fortunes in a millennial setting are a compensatory mechanism. But that’s not necessarily so. Not everyone who experiences the stresses of these kinds embraces an apocalyptic cult; moreover, Stephen L. Cook in his book Prophecy & Apocalypticism lists ten historical millennialist groups or persons from quite well-to-do and relatively comfortable backgrounds. The following come from pages 35 to 40.

1. The Free Spirit Brethren

Where: Europe

When: From the thirteenth century onward

What: millennialists

Who: members of privileged strata of society; less affluent members of intelligentsia; from wealthy, well-established family backgrounds; “idle women from the elite of urban society”

Wirsberg_Siebmacher104_-_Franken2. The Wirsberg Brothers

Where: Europe

When: 1450’s and 1460’s

What: millennialsts

Who: Brothers Janko and Livin of Wirsberg were millennial catalyst figures even though they were rich and powerful

Girolamo_Savonarola

Girolamo Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo, c. 1498

3. Savonarolan millennialism

Where: Florence

When: End of fifteenth century

What: The millennial instruction was taken up as the basis for the civic program of the Florentine republic

Who: Famous civic reformer Savanarola proposed a worldview addressed to political officials, the upper class, as well as the poor.

4. The Franciscan Spirituals

Where: Calabria

When: Twelfth century read more »


2015-05-31

Tales of Jesus and Moses: Two Ways to Apply Social Memory in Historical Studies

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by Neil Godfrey

Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the A...

Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Akhenaten refresher

  • Egyptian Pharaoh who ruled for 17 years in middle of fourteenth century, up till around 1336 or 1334 BCE
  • originally known as Amenthotep IV (or in Greek, Amenophis IV); changed his name to Akhenaten
  • opposed the orthodox priests of Ammon-Re; redirected their income to his new god Aton
  • abolished traditional cults and idols of Egyptian polytheism
  • established the sole worship of a new god of light, Aton, (variously described as monotheismmonolatrism and  henotheism)
  • depicted Aton as sun disc with rays ending in hands, understood to be a universal god incapable of true representation
  • established new centre of worship at Akhetaten (today known as Amarna)
  • temples to Aten stressed worship in open sunlight (contrary to earlier custom of darkened indoor temples)
  • Akhenaten was the sole mediator between Aton and earth
  • affinities between Hymn to Aton and Psalm 104
  • son was the famous Tutankhamen

Unlike Moses, Akhenaten, Pharaoh Amenophis IV, was a figure exclusively of history and not of memory. Shortly after his death, his name was erased from the king-lists, his monuments were dismantled, his inscriptions and representations were destroyed, and almost every trace of his existence was obliterated. For centuries no one knew of his extraordinary revolution. Until his rediscovery in the nineteenth century, there was virtually no memory of Akhenaten.

Moses represents the reverse case. No traces have ever been found of his historical existence. He grew and developed only as a figure of memory, absorbing and embodying all traditions that pertained to legislation, liberation, and monotheism. (Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p. 23)

This current series of posts has arisen out of Professor Chris Keith’s references to Egyptologist Jan Assmann’s comments about social memory theory in history. Keith uses memory theory to “answer questions about the historical Jesus”. By starting with the gospel narratives as memories of Jesus that have been necessarily reinterpreted he attempts to uncover those narrative details that most likely point to a past reality about Jesus. In Jesus’ Literacy, for example, he judges the Gospel of Mark’s implication that Jesus was was not scribally literate to be more likely a memory reflection of the real historical Jesus than the Gospel of Luke’s suggestion that Jesus was able to competently read the Jewish Scriptures.

However, when I read the first two chapters of Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian I read an approach to social memory that is the opposite of the one used by Chris Keith. Keith begins with the Gospels that are assumed to record certain memory-impressions and attempts to work backwards to what those original events more or less looked like to observers. But as I wrote in my earlier post that’s not how the Egyptologist works:

The Egyptologist begins with “hard evidence” and originally genuine historical memories and works his way forward into the later literature to find out what must have become of these memories. The historical Jesus scholar, it appears to me, begins with the later literature and tries to guess what memories came before it.

The two methods look to me to be like polar opposites rather than “similar”.

It is a pity Chris Keith is too busy to engage with Vridar (no reason given in his personal email, just a copy of a cordial invitation to respond to a Nigerian banker-benefactor asking me for my account details) at the cost of public religious literacy. I would love to discuss these questions with him seriously but he’s clearly not interested. (Slightly revised)

The difference is potentially very significant. Take the different versions of the Moses-Exodus narratives that we have seen in the recent posts — each one a differently interpreted memory — and apply Keith’s method to those in order to arrive at information about “the historical Moses” and the “historical Exodus” and see what happens. As we saw in that first post Assmann has doubts that there even was a historical Moses in the first place and he does not believe there ever was a biblical-like Exodus led by such a figure. Applying Keith’s method to “answer questions about the historical Jesus” to these memory-narratives would produce a very false notion of Egyptian and Jewish history.

Assmann starts with something we lack in the case of the historical Jesus. The known events of Egyptian history according to the contemporary inscriptions. These are used to interpret the later “memory literature”. The “memory literature” is not used in an attempt to uncover past historical events. The past historical events are used to interpret the subsequent stories.

Keith may object that he does use what is known of the historical past in order to assess what is closest to historical reality in the Gospels. He does, for example, in Jesus’ Literacy delve into what we can know about the nature and extent of literacy in ancient Palestine. But this tells us nothing new or relevant to the actual historical Jesus. It is comparable to uncovering details about the historical Pilate, or the architecture of the Jerusalem Temple, or the geography of Galilee. No-one would believe we are coming any closer to “the historical Moses” by learning all we can about the Egyptian religious customs and beliefs, the social structures, ethnic groups or literacy in ancient Egypt and Palestine and applying this knowledge to any of the stories we have about Moses.

So here’s how Assmann uses social memory. read more »


2015-05-27

Moses and the Exodus: again, Moses as an Egyptian Priest

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing . . . . 

The final account to be considered is that of the Greek geographer and historian Strabo who was probably writing early first century CE. The passage is found in Book 16, chapter 2 of his Geography.

According to Strabo Moses was an Egyptian priest who established a religion that stood against the traditional focus on idols and sacrifices. “Superstitious” and “legalistic” regulations such as food laws, circumcision, etc. were only introduced after the death of Moses.

35 Moses, namely, was one of the Egyptian priests, and held a part of Lower Egypt, as it is called,

but he went away from there to Judaea, since he was displeased with the state of affairs there, and was accompanied by many people who worshipped the Divine Being.

For he says, and taught, that the Egyptians were mistaken in representing the Divine Being by the images of beasts and cattle, as were also the Libyans; and that the Greeks were also wrong in modelling gods in human form; for, according to him, God is this one thing alone that encompasses us all and encompasses land and sea — the thing which we call heaven, or universe, or the nature of all that exists. What man, then, if he has sense, could be bold enough to fabricate an image of God resembling any creature amongst us? Nay, people should leave off all image-carving, and, setting apart a sacred precinct and a worthy sanctuary, should worship God without an image; and people who have good dreams should sleep in the sanctuary, not only themselves on their own behalf, but also others for the rest of the people; and those who live self-restrained and righteous lives should always expect some blessing or gift or sign from God, but no other should expect them. read more »


Moses and the Exodus: Moses as founder of an alternative Egyptian religion

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing . . . . 

The following account of “the Exodus” and Moses’ place in history comes from Apion, another Greek who lived much of his time in Egypt. Again Josephus is our source, and a hostile one at that. Apion portrays Moses as an Egyptian priest who preserved a true form of Egyptian religion. The whole “Exodus/Moses” episode belongs to Egyptian (not Jewish) history in his writings.

I briefly take notice of what Apion adds upon that subject; for in his third book, which relates to the affairs of Egypt, he speaks thus:

“I have heard of the ancient men of Egypt, that Moses was of Heliopolis, and that he thought himself obliged to follow the customs of his forefathers, and offered his prayers in the open air, towards the city walls; but that he reduced them all to be directed towards sun-rising, which was agreeable to the situation of Heliopolis; that he also set up pillars instead of gnomons, under which was represented a cavity like that of a boat, and the shadow that fell from their tops fell down upon that cavity, that it might go round about the like course as the sun itself goes round in the other.” read more »


Moses and Exodus according to the Roman historian Tacitus

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing. . . . 

The Roman historian Tacitus (ca 56-117 C.E.) appears to combine several versions of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Most significantly,

In Tacitus, the characterization of Jewish monotheism as a counter-religion which is the inversion of Egyptian tradition and therefore totally derivative of, and dependent on, Egypt reaches its climax. (Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p. 37)

From book 5 of Tacitus’s Histories:

3 1 Most authors agree that once during a plague in Egypt which caused bodily disfigurement, King Bocchoris approached the oracle of Ammon and asked for a remedy, whereupon he was told to purge his kingdom and to transport this race into other lands, since it was hateful to the gods.

So the Hebrews were searched out and gathered together; then, being abandoned in the desert, while all others lay idle and weeping, one only of the exiles, Moses by name, warned them not to hope for help from gods or men, for they were deserted by both, but to trust to themselves, regarding as a guide sent from heaven the one whose assistance should first give them escape from their present distress.

They agreed, and then set out on their journey in utter ignorance, but trusting to chance. Nothing caused them so much distress as scarcity of water, and in fact they had already fallen exhausted over the plain nigh unto death, when a herd of wild asses moved from their pasturage to a rock that was shaded by a grove of trees. Moses followed them, and, conjecturing the truth from the grassy ground, discovered abundant streams of water.

This relieved them, and they then marched six days continuously, and on the seventh seized a country, expelling the former inhabitants; there they founded a city and dedicated a temple.

4 1 To establish his influence over this people for all time, Moses introduced new religious practices, quite opposed to those of all other religions. The Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit all that we abhor. read more »


2015-05-26

Moses and Exodus: an Ancient Jewish Counter-History

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by Neil Godfrey

Artapanus of Alexandria was a Jewish historian living in Egypt in the late third or second century B.C.E. We read the relevant excerpts of his work On/Concerning the Jews in another work by Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica (= Preparation of the Gospel). Artapanus gives a new twist to the narratives we have read so far by making Moses a Jew but also the founder of the Egyptian religion and civilization. (He is even identified with Hermes, the inventor of the sacred hieroglyphic script.) As Jans Assmann comments,

[Artapanus’s] picture of Moses is pure counterhistory . . . : it is the exact inversion of Hecataeus’ and Manetho’s Moses, written in contradiction to their texts and with very little reference to the Bible or other Jewish traditions. (Moses the Egyptian, p. 36)

Enjoy the Jewish counter-history! From Book 9, chapter 27 of Praeparatio:

AND Artapanus says, in his book Concerning the Jews, that after the death of Abraham, and of his son Mempsasthenoth, and likewise of the king of Egypt, his son Palmanothes succeeded to the sovereignty.

‘This king behaved badly to the Jews; and first he built Kessa, and founded the temple therein, and then built the temple in Heliopolis.

‘He begat a daughter Merris, whom he betrothed to a certain Chenephres, king of the regions above Memphis (for there were at that time many kings in Egypt); and she being barren took a supposititious child from one of the Jews, and called him Mouses (Moses): but by the Greeks he was called, when grown to manhood, Musaeus.

And this Moses, they said, was the teacher of Orpheus; and when grown up he taught mankind many useful things. For

  • he was the inventor of ships,
  • and machines for laying stones,
  • and Egyptian arms,
  • and engines for drawing water and for war,
  • and invented philosophy.
  • Further he divided the State into thirty-six Nomes,
  • and appointed the god to be worshipped by each Nome,
  • and the sacred writing for the priests,
  • and their gods were cats, and dogs, and ibises:
  • he also apportioned an especial district for the priests.

‘All these things he did for the sake of keeping the sovereignty firm and safe for Chenepbres. For previously the multitudes, being under no order, now expelled and now set up kings, often the same persons, but sometimes others.

‘For these reasons then Moses was beloved by the multitudes, and being deemed by the priests worthy to be honoured like a god, was named Hermes, because of his interpretation of the Hieroglyphics.

But when Chenephres perceived the excellence of Moses he envied him, and sought to slay him on some plausible pretext. read more »


Moses and Exodus according to an early Roman Historian

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing . . .

The first century B.C.E. (Celtic) Roman historian Pompeius Trogus wrote Historicae Philippicae (Philippic History), of which an epitome survives. The relevant section:

But a prosperous family of ten sons made Israhel more famous than any of his ancestors. Having divided, his kingdom, in consequence, into ten governments, he committed them to his sons, and called the whole people Jews from Judas, who died soon after the division, and ordered his memory to be held in veneration by them all, as his portion was shared among them. The youngest of the brothers was Joseph, whom the others, fearing his extraordinary abilities, secretly made prisoner, and sold to some foreign merchants. Being carried by them into Egypt, and having there, by his great powers of mind, made himself master of the arts of magic, he found in a short time great favour with the king; for he was eminently skilled in prodigies, and was the first to establish the science of interpreting dreams; and nothing, indeed, of divine or human law seems to have been unknown to him; so that he foretold a dearth in the land some years before it happened, and all Egypt would have perished by famine, had not the king, by his advice, ordered the corn to be laid up for several years; such being the proofs of his knowledge, that his admonitions seemed to proceed, not from a mortal, but a god.

His son was Moses, whom, besides the inheritance of his father’s knowledge, the comeliness of his person also recommended.

But the Egyptians, being troubled with scabies and leprosy, and moved by some oracular prediction, expelled him, with those who had the disease, out of Egypt, that the distemper might not spread among a greater number. read more »